If nothing else, Relic has a history of shaking up the real-time strategy genre every few years. Company of Heroes delivered an RTS with a surprising level of options for tactical thinking and an engine that was capable of delivering a suitably epic presentation of the carnage of war. Even with this track record, Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War II is somewhat of a surprise. Not only does it easily take the crown as one of the better games released under the franchise, but it also sets a pretty high bar for RTS games coming out later this year.
Dawn of War II is best described if you think of the campaign and multiplayer modes separately; while the two share many similarities, they also have more than a few key differences. In multiplayer, the gameplay is a much more traditional affair, with players controlling large groups of units on the map, but the campaign mode is much more tactical and has the player usually controlling no more than four units. Campaign play in Dawn of War II isn't about rebuilding a base every mission or amassing units to overrun the enemy; it is about the tactical usage of a few keys squads and their abilities.
The campaign mode's story revolves around the Blood Ravens chapter of the Space Marines, who, in Warhammer 40K lore, are the genetically superior soldiers of a war-hungry emperor. When some of their recruiting worlds come under attack by a band of Orks, the Blood Ravens dispatch a portion of their chapter led by Captain Thule to eradicate the infestation. This mission is thrown for a loop when the waif-like Eldar race begins taking potshots at the Space Marines, while the threat of an approaching Tyranid hive fleet threatens to consume all life in the sector.
Starting off in the campaign mode, you control two squads, your lone Force Commander and a squad of tactical marines who are your jack-of-all-trades infantry. As the campaign progresses, you end up with a total of six squads to round out your roster, including a heavy bolter squad led by Avitus, a scout squad led by Cyrus, an assault marine squad led by Thaddeus, and a lone dreadnought. You can only field four squads at a time under most circumstances, or two per player if playing cooperatively, so choosing squads best suited for a task can be the difference between an easy victory and a stunning defeat.
The campaign is played out over the course of many days and eventually over the face of three different planets. Before each mission, you have the option of outfitting your squad's weapons, armor and accessories, which are picked up via mission rewards and random drops from enemy corpses. This allows your units to have flexibility beyond their squad archetypes; for some missions, you'll want your scout squad to field a sniper rifle while at other times, you might want to keep them close with a shotgun. In a style usually found in RPGs, weapons have a spec sheet detailing their damage per second, weapon type and other characteristics, like bonus health or knockback. Equipping better items to a squad gradually changes its appearance, and by the end of the game, your squads will be dealing massive casualties to enemy forces while looking much more imposing than they did at the outset of the game.
As enemies are killed and missions are completed, the squads gain experience, which eventually means that they'll gain levels all the way up to the level 20 cap. Each level gives the squad two more attribute points that can be spent in one of four areas: Ranged, Stamina, Strength and Will. Ranged and Strength cover a unit's combat effectiveness in gunfights and melee, respectively. Stamina governs health points and regeneration, and Will dictates how much energy a squad has to spend on special abilities. At predefined points in these attributes, squads will unlock new abilities, such as being able to use a new weapon type or other perk. However, with the cap in place, you cannot max out all four attributes of a squad, so care must be taken in developing them with an end goal in mind. While taking a rounded approach will leave them with no real weaknesses, they will miss out on the choicest perks, which can only be found with a more focused approach.
At the start of the campaign, the mission sequence is predetermined, but before long, you will be looking at a list of current missions from all three planets. Missions break down into three distinct types. Plot missions are, rather obviously, key to advancing the plot. Optional missions are always available after they pop up and usually offer choice items as a reward. Finally, defense missions must be accepted and completed within a certain number of campaign days, and they often involve defending an installation that you took in a prior mission. On these missions, you and your squads simply need to fortify an area with the help of a couple of deployable turrets and eliminate the enemy hordes that are trying to destroy the installation's three generators. They're a nice change of pace from the standard mission and really let you test your tactical might against superior numbers.
On nearly every mission map are two of these three installations: automated foundries, communication arrays and imperial shrines. You can claim only one per deployment, but since each map gets reused in some fashion two or three times, there is always a chance to capture the other installation at a later time. Holding these installations gives you a bonus for all future missions on that planet. Foundries are held solely for the purpose of boosting your end of mission performance rating, which can have a big impact on your campaign. Arrays improve the quality of your mission briefing tips, so you'll know that the target boss in a mission is weak to a specific type of weapon or that the enemy is fielding elite troops. Arrays will also give you another charge on your ability to call in artillery strikes. Finally, assuming you carry the proper accessory shrines, you'll get additional charges on your temporary invincibility.
At the end of every mission in Dawn of War II, you're rated in three categories: fury, resilience and speed. This rating goes up to five stars for each one, and each star boosts your overall performance rating, which is measured by a growing bar. The foundries play a role in this by adding more to your rating for each one you hold on the planet. Fill the bar enough, and the Blood Ravens get to deploy on another mission that same day. Fill it nearly to the top, and you'll be able to pack in two more missions before the sun sets on your band of warriors. This allows you to mop up three pressing defense jobs at once or pack in a few more missions to beef up your squads.
Given that you only have direct control over a small handful of squads during the mission, it is important to exercise as much tactical and strategic thinking as possible rather than blindly sending forth units. Making a return from Company of Heroes is the cover mechanic, which lets you put units behind average or good cover to trade fire with the enemy; it's a necessity because out in the open, even mean men in power armor will get cut down by gunfire. Picking out cover with good firing angles is also important, and letting the enemy charge up a hill while you have your heavy bolter squad in good cover at the top means that for every nick on your marine's power armor, the enemy will have lost five men. Of course, this also works vice versa, and unless you want a helpless massacre on your hands, assaulting an entrenched enemy is usually a matter of trading fire from cover until you see an opening.
While each squad is composed of three or four men, they are not invulnerable and can get picked off until only the squad leader remains. If the squad leader falls in battle, an icon appears above his head, and he can be revived by any nearby squads. In either case, to replace fallen squadmates and get back to full effectiveness, squads must retreat to a control point that you hold on the map where they can find new members to fill up the vacant slots. This means that your squads can never die as long as you have at least one squad still alive to revive them, but if you lose all squads in this manner, the mission is a failure. Given the propensity for sniper units to instantly kill individual men and explosives taking down entire squads, this can occur to even an experienced player. The ability to pick up downed squads and dust them off is by no means an easy crutch for success.
Multiplayer is a much more conventional RTS style of play, though not without its own twists. Players can choose any of the four races from the campaign, and they must also choose one of the race's three hero units to lead the army. These hero units are much more powerful and can be upgraded in many ways, but they can still be dropped if you're not careful, and they're relatively costly to resurrect. Each player only has one base building, removing the necessity for base building or management; instead you progress through all three tiers by simply having enough of the requisition and power resources.
With only two resources types and a minimalist approach to base micromanagement, this puts the emphasis on the units, and many of the same rules of the campaign carry over. Units can take cover to increase their survivability, and though they don't have persistent items like they do in the campaign mode, they can be upgraded by spending resources on getting a new weapon or squad leader. Unit types not seen in the campaign, such as the Space Marines' Rhino troop transports and Predator tanks, also make an appearance. Though this means vehicles serve a more prominent purpose in the multiplayer segment than in the campaign, the majority of the multiplayer action is centered on using infantry effectively, rather than mowing down people with a bunch of tanks.
Dawn of War II uses a new iteration of the engine from Company of Heroes, and it shows. Units are detailed to the point that lore buffs will notice the finer details of their emblems and markings, while casual Warhammer 40K fans will simply take note of how fluidly they can engage in combat and move about. Special effects are as driven as ever, with assault cannon barrages ripping apart trees and buildings alike — along with any Orks in the vicinity — while gunfire kicks up spurts of dirt and debris from the landscape. Heavy explosives blow enemies into little physics-controlled bits, while any survivors flail around like ragdolls before coming to rest. When an infantry squad locked in melee kills an enemy, there's a chance it does so with a finishing move animation, such as bashing in its skull with a hammer or unloading a few more shots into the corpse. The overall presentation is graphic, intense and violent, which should be no surprise to those who are at all familiar with Warhammer 40K.
Dawn of War II isn't without its flaws, as the occasional gameplay quirk will likely draw a bit of ire. When squads are told to retreat, they do so by picking the shortest route to the nearest control point that you hold. This means that they have more resilience and run faster, but if that route happens to go through an enemy encampment, you'll have to fight them off although you're down a squad. The inventory screen can make it difficult to find specific accessories you're looking for because by the end, you'll have a few items that look similar. Additionally, while the game usually ran like silk, we did encounter a reproducible crash. In the face of everything else, however, these are relatively minor inconveniences; when you're mowing down wave after wave of enemies on a defense mission, you'll likely find it easy to forgive the title's shortcomings.
There are many reasons why Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War II could be considered a successful real-time strategy game. The game engine is capable of fine attention to detail, and the unit design is balanced in that each exhibits both strengths and flaws. The campaign mode has more than a few curveballs in store, with its almost RPG-like unit progression and non-linear mission structure. The multiplayer is the most traditional part of the entire game, and yet it still isn't quite like the genre's gameplay norm. The title is successful because it doesn't just try these new gameplay elements; it outright embraces them and makes it feel like the genre has simply been lacking them and been the worse for it. It's easy to find the quality in the title, though it is the authentic adaptation of the venerable tabletop game that really gives it style. For a game that tosses so many RTS conventions out the window, Dawn of War II is a surprisingly solid real-time strategy title that pretty much lays down the gauntlet for any game that follows in its wake.
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